Sophie | French | Parliament; Civil Service.

Sophie shares her journey through and beyond her PhD, delving into the pivotal moments and influences that shaped her path. With a keen eye on the skills honed during her doctoral studies, she illuminates how they seamlessly translate into her current role as a clerk in the House of Commons. Exploring her transition out of academia, she offers candid reflections on the emotional landscape then and now.

From the inception of career considerations during her final year to the intricacies of navigating the parliamentary sphere, Sophie intricately maps out her trajectory. She grapples with the significance of her PhD status, juxtaposing her expectations with the reality of her experience and outlining the core of her research.

In weighing the pros and cons of public sector work, she offers insights drawn from personal experience and articulates her motivations for pursuing a PhD. With a seasoned perspective, she extends valuable advice to those contemplating a civil service career while reflecting on the profound impact of her doctoral journey in her professional milieu.

Explore Sophie’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Sophie’s PhD
The reasons behind her PhD
Sophie’s PhD Topic
The meaning of the PhD
Finishing the PhD
Sophie’s PhD experience
Sophie’s connections
Feelings towards academia
Sophie’s current role
The pros and cons of working in the public sector
Sophie’s advice

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Career Pathway

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Turning Points

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Audio Interview

The background to Sophie’s PhD

When did you complete your PhD? How many years did it take and what was it in?

The PhD was in French literature, 18th century novel, a novelist that no one has ever heard of, but quite similar to kind of “Dangerous Liaisons” type of writing. I did three years of it full time and then I started working here about a day after my three year mark. And I didn't actually submit the final thesis until about six months after that. Although I, I completed a full draft before I started working here. So the bulk of the work was done.

And how old were you when you started?

I was, I guess I must have been 22 'cause I did a four year degree and then a one year Master's -22 or 23. I can't remember exactly.

And, and how did you fund your study?

It was all funded. The first year of the PhD was funded by Cambridge University, which was the university I went to. And then after that I got an AHRB as it was grant for the rest of it.

Did you work before you started a PhD?

Only student jobs in the holidays. Not, not a proper job.

What kind of jobs did you do in the Holidays?

I did, I worked for a market research company that basically, because it happened to be located in the town where I grew up and they did, research with the companies abroad and people abroad, so they needed French speakers. So I did that. And then I also worked in Cambridge between my Masters and my PhD for a software company doing translation of their software into French in German.

Was there any significant obstacles that you had to overcome in order to embark on the PhD?  

Well, getting the funding was the significant obstacle because I didn't have, I was entirely reliant on getting funding from a research council from the university. 'cause I didn't, I don't have a particularly rich family and I didn't have any savings. So if I hadn't got the money to do it, I wouldn't have done it. And it was as simple as that really. When I was finishing off my first degree, I, I also actually applied to do a Master's and a PhD in America, on the recommendation of one of my tutors at the time because he thought, you know, there's quite a lot of funding in America, which I was also accepted on, but I always wanted to stay in England if I could because my boyfriend's here and all my friends are here.

So I didn't really want to go off to America on my own.

The reasons behind her PhD

What were your motivations for doing a PhD?

Mainly personal interest, and I still would say that the only reason to do a PhD is because you are actually really interested in the subject. It, it was in a sense it was also to do with carrying on, carrying on, because I finished my degree and I did pretty well and I enjoyed it. So I did a Master's and I finished my Master's and I did pretty well and I enjoyed it. So I did a PhD. And I wasn't really, although I'd, people would ask me, “Do you want to go on and carry on in academia?”.

And as, as I would say to them at the time was, “Yes, at the moment I think I do”, but people change their minds and I, I knew people who'd said, “Oh yes, definitely going to be an academic and gotta to the end of their three years” and said, you know, “I can't stand it anymore. I definitely want to go and do something else”. So I wasn't, I was quite open-minded about not necessarily carrying on.

Sophie’s PhD Topic

Can you tell me a little bit about your PhD topic?

The PhD was in French Literature, 18th century novel, a novelist that no one has ever heard of, but quite similar to kind of “Dangerous Liaisons” type of writing.

The meaning of the PhD

 What does the PhD mean to you personally?

I'm, I'm very glad I did it and because it's a big achievement and I got a lot out of it, even though by the time I got to the third year, I was basically fed up with it and couldn't wait for it to end. I'm, I kind of see it as a, a thing that I can look back on and say, “Oh, well”, you know, if I ever get a bit depressed or something, I say, “Oh, well actually I did that and, you know, I finished it and it was a big piece of work and it was good”.

How do you feel your PhD status is regarded by your employers?

I think they think it's a good thing. I think it's not, it's not completely unusual to have a PhD and be working here, so I don't think they thought about it that much. You get paid slightly more when you start. Yeah. It's nice to have doctor before your name, 'cause then when people ring you up, they don't think you're a secretary, you know, that kind of thing.

I don't think it's, it makes a big difference though.

Finishing the PhD

Can you talk me through that last year of your PhD?

So at the beginning of my final year I was sitting there thinking, okay, I've got a year to run. I'm funded for a year and then after that I've got to find something else to do. And academic jobs starting the following October were being advertised at that time. So I started applying for them. I basically took the decision then that I was gonna have to apply for them at that point because I didn't want to be in the situation where I got to the end of my funding and didn't have anything to do. So I spoke to my supervisor and we had to talk about it and she said it's, it's difficult to get a job if you don't have your PhD in hand or pretty much finished, which I didn't.

But given the situation, she was very supportive and wrote me references and all the kind of things that supervisors do. So I sent off some applications for that and at the same time I went to see my careers advisor, booked an appointment, just went to see her. I had this idea that I wanted to combine my academic interests with something a bit more real world. So this is the idea that I had that I could maybe work for a think tank or something like that.

And I went to see her and she told me about this job that I'm doing now in the House of Commons, which is recruited through the civil service fast stream, but it's not actually part of the general civil service. It's a separate thing. They kind of piggyback on the application process. I think that's changed. I think the civil service application process actually changed since I did it. So I wouldn't want anyone to rely on what I'm saying a hundred percent. But at the time they had two application rounds in a year, which were January and October I think. And I applied for the one starting in the January, I think it was at the time.

Which would, which got me in to start working in October that year. So it's quite a long process. You do have to plan ahead, otherwise you're gonna have a, a gap.

Can you talk me through the process?

Yes. So I, this definitely has changed. I know, the way that we did it was that you initially got invited to sit a test, which was a day long test that you had to do very like logical things, numerical things, et cetera. And there was a centre in Cambridge. So I went and sat in a sports hall and did a test all day and then you wait for them to write back to you and say whether you've got through that or not.

And that part I know is all done online now, so you just get, you go on the computer and you can do it from your house. So I got through that. And then the next section was to come to London for a two day assessment centre, which was group activities and interviews with various people. and some more kind of essay like written tests.

I got through that.

How did you find that?

It was fine. I think it was helped at the time because I still hadn't totally ruled out the academic route at that point. So I wasn't like thinking this is my entire future and I must do really well. And I think that took some of the pressure off and let me just be myself, because there's quite a lot of interaction in these group tests and things. You all have to sit there, you have to pretend to be policy people in the government and decide how to spend your budget and things like that and negotiate.

And I think I was a bit more, I took a few more risks than I would've done if, if I'd been thinking, “Oh I must do well”.

Were you among similar kinds of people?

It was a bit of a mixture really. There were people who were just grad, 21 year olds just graduated and there were plenty of people actually who had done various forms of postgraduate study and there were mature students or people who were career changing. So I didn't feel that I was older than everyone else. I felt I was older than some of them, but I didn't feel that it was an odd thing to be doing to be applying a couple of years later than some of them.

So then I got through that. and for this job and for some of the other civil service jobs, there is an extra interview session after that. But once the way that I did it, after you'd done that assessment centre, if you got through that you were guaranteed a job of some kind. But because I wanted to do this job particularly, I had to come for another interview session, which is more of a traditional interview where you just talk about your experiences and they give you questions in a standard interview format.

Was it daunting?

I, I'd say the same thing again really, which was because I wasn't thinking this is my one and only option. It was less daunting than it would otherwise have been. And I was more relaxed and I think that was to my benefit because I was thinking, you know, this is an option. If I get this job, that's great, but if I don't, probably something else will come along before October.

How did you prepare for the interview?  

I didn't prepare that much for it. I read some books about parliament, which seems like a fairly obvious thing to do. Although now I think in retrospect the amount I knew is quite little really. For the previous assessment centre, we'd had to pick a topic that we were gonna research ourselves to talk about and I'd picked Parliament 'cause I thought I could reuse it again in the final interview. And I think that was quite useful. But they didn't really expect you to have prepared as such.

They were just asking general questions.

Did they ask you anything about your PhD and were they particularly interested in the fact?

No, not, not really, no. They asked me what it was about as one of the early questions. I think that was mainly more, they didn't seem to like ask me any searching questions about it, just what information, what it was about and why I chosen to do it.

Could you sense any kind of attitude that they had about the PhD, whether they thought that generally it was a good thing to have done or might be useful in your job? Or did, was anybody dismissive of it or?

No, certainly not. No one was dismissive of it. I think they valued it and I think I got the impression that it was a good thing to have. But I think I was dealing with a job where all of the entrants are pretty highly qualified, so they, I don't think they thought it was going to put me ahead of anyone else. I didn't get that impression at all.

And when you went through the civil service fast stream application process, did you think at all about going down the, the line of the diplomatic corps?  ‘cause you have languages?

Yeah. That was when I originally applied for the civil service after I finished my first degree in languages. That is what I had envisaged doing. That's all European service. But, this time when I got this job, I think I was pretty unusual in actually applying to become a clerk. Normally the way people would become clerks is they apply to the first few and they discovered that clerkship's a part of it and then they come on an open day here or something and they say, “Oh fine, I'll put that as one of my options”.

And we only recruit three or four people a year, so it's not a big department. Whereas I was completely the other way around because I'd been so sold on this idea by my career as advisor and not in a bad way, in a good way. I'd always had this as the thing that I was trying to get out of it and if I didn't make it through the final board, okay, I could probably still get a job in another department somewhere, which would be great, but this was really what I wanted to do.

So how was it to be finishing up your PhD and working?

Mm-Hmm. That was quite tough actually. I wouldn't recommend doing it unless you have got a pretty full draft done already because what I was doing was rewriting and editing and moving bits about, it wasn't starting from scratch on any of it. I had all of my chapters pretty much done.

And still it was quite tough because, you know, you get to the end of your working week and you're quite knackered and you've gotta spend your whole weekend on your PhD. So yeah, it, it wasn't brilliant but it was doable and because the end was in sight so I knew it wasn't gonna go on forever and ever.

Did you ever at that point think that maybe the job taking the job would jeopardise finishing the PhD?

I know there are people in this job who, who have taken the job before finishing their PhD and never finished it. And I never ever wanted that to happen to me because I always thought, what have I done three years for if I'm not gonna actually finish it off? So I was quite self-disciplined really in a way in saying I have to do this and I'll regret it if I don't do it for the rest of my life. So yeah, but as I said, I was in a good position by that point because I had got the full draft out and if I hadn't, if I, if I'd still had a lot of it to write, I think it would've been a bad idea to have done that.

The other thing is it's quite useful here that you have to be on night duty some, some days 'cause the House sits until 11 o'clock at night and a lot of that is hanging around and waiting for things to happen. So I could use some of that time to do a bit of work on my PhD while I was, while I was here.

Did you apply for any other jobs?

I don't think I ended up applying for anything else because I applied for the civil service so far in advance because it's such a long application process and I think what I thought was, okay, if that goes wrong then I'll try something, I'll try for a different job.

But you know, it was far too early for something that you wanted to start in October to be applying in January for it pretty much any other, you know, publishing or whatever it might be.

If you look back at the kind of career preparation that you did, would you have done anything differently?  

No, I don't think so. But I think there was an element of luck involved that I happened to get this nice careers advisor who happened to see exactly to suggest something that's worked out so well for me. And I'm very glad that I did go and have a, you know, good half hours conversation with her about what I liked doing and what I didn't like doing. And I'm, in a way I am in retrospect, I kind of think, I didn't realise at the time how important it was for me to go and do that and to do it relatively far in advance of when the moment was going to come that I needed to make a decision so that I, I knew what was out there and I wasn't rushed into maybe doing something that wouldn't have been so suitable.

Do you think at the time other things had come together in your mind and that she just helped you to consolidate it?

The luck part of it I think is because this is a, the job that I'm doing, it's not a well-known job. It's not, if someone asked you what do you want to do, you wouldn't choose this job 'cause you wouldn't know what it was.

So if she hadn't mentioned it to me, I don't think I would've discovered it in another way just by, I don't know, going to the milk round or surfing the internet or whatever it is. So I think from that perspective, I think it's, we had a really good career service at university and we had a big database of what previous students had done in that kind of thing. So I think they were very clued up on a lot of things that you might not think of off your own back.

Did networking play any part?  

Not really, no. But I don't think it's a really, it's not a really networking job. You just, because it's such a long institutional application procedure, it's not gonna help you to network.

Sophie’s PhD experience

What was your PhD experience like?

It was, well, I, I think what I discovered from it was that I went into it thinking it was going to be all about cleverness and coming up with a clever answer, which seemed to be what undergraduate degrees are about. And actually it ended up being a lot more about slogging through the books and doing the research and sticking it out, which is fine. And I did, there were the clever ideas as well, but it was a lot more in depth digging to, to kind of bring them out.

Sophie’s connections

Does the work that you do now have any direct or indirect connection with the subject area of your PhD?

It doesn't have any direct connection at all, but then I think it would be hard to find a job that does have any direct con, you know, connection with 18th century French Libertines. But in terms of the skills that I developed, I think it does have quite a lot of relationship because there's a lot of, there is a lot of research and collating material and thinking critically particularly about the material.

With committees, what we are doing is we're, we are shadowing the government, so we are looking at what the government's policies are and criticising them basically when it comes down to it. So critical thinking and questions that you might want to ask to tease out holes in policy. That kind of aspect of it I think does relate back to what I did. I'm tempted to say transferable skills, but I think that's a bit of a, an easy phrase to use. I'm not sure that is, it is exactly transferable skills.

I think it's more direct than that. But it's definitely, I definitely think that I've been better at doing this job than I would've been if I hadn't done a PhD.

And anything that's mainly research skills and critical thinking?

And drafting skills as well. I mean, having written the how 70,000 words of it or whatever it was, when you come to write a select committee report of 20,000, it doesn't seem that bad.

Can you see some connection between the processes involved in writing a PhD thesis and in drafting the document for your committee?  

Yeah, I mean, what happens when you get to the end of an inquiry is that the clerk is responsible for drafting what's called the chairman's draft report. So it came as actually quite a shock to me that MP’s don’t draft their own reports. But I guess that's actually, if you think about it, it's quite obvious in retrospect. So yes, I think there is quite a lot of overlap.

What came as a shock to me as well when I started is that you write this draft report and then you give it to the committee and they change it all. And that's fine 'cause they, it's their report. But if you are used to an academic situation where you are in control of everything that you write and you know, down to starting sentences with however it can irritate you a bit that your committee has taken your wonderful thing that you've beautifully drafted and torn it all to pieces and changed it all. So that's, I think it's, it's obviously, it's right and it's healthy that it's their report and they write whatever they want in it.

But in terms of psychology or it, it's a departure from academic style of writing. But in terms of writing the report and putting the issues together and doing the research and picking out the bits that are most relevant, then it's quite similar.

Feelings towards academia

When you embarked on a PhD, were you anticipating an academic career or hadn't you really thought through what you’d do at the end?

I was, I would say I, I was, I thought that was quite likely, yes. I'd never really, even growing up, I never really had any burning desire to be one thing or another thing. And to be honest, up until I got to university, I never really knew that you could just have a career in academia. 'cause it hadn't, when you're at school, it's not something they generally present to you as an option. I'd always, I'd always thought about careers and when I started my PhD, I'd also previously applied to the civil service fast stream at that point in case I didn't get funding for the PhD, then I would have an option to do something else.

So it wasn't that I wasn't bothered, I wouldn't, you know, it wasn't that I was too relaxed and thought, “Oh manana, it'll all be okay”. It was just that I hadn't ruled anything out or in definitively.

Did you do anything during the PhD that you could consider in retrospect was sort of career building?

I didn't go to any of these kind of week away things that they do.

I didn't go to any of that. I did some conferences, which I guess it depends what kind of a career you think you were building. 'cause if you're building an academic career, then okay, I did conferences and I published papers and that's career building for academia. And I guess the public speaking experience is quite nice to have. 'cause I used to be quite terrified of doing public speaking and I kind of got over it a bit during that.

Any Teaching?

Oh, I did do teaching, but I hated it.

I think, yeah, that would've been a pitfall. I just, I'm not a natural teacher and I think to an extent you do have to have a natural gift for it. And I find it quite uncomfortable to be stood in front of a class and them all writing down what you're saying and you think, oh, didn't write it down and I didn't, you know, I'm just thinking off the top of my head and they're all writing it down faithfully and that, that bothered me. So, and I, yeah, I just, I've never been that interested in teaching.

It was the research aspect that was more interesting for me.

So was that partly why you decided against going down the academic route?

I would say it was a factor. It wouldn't be the main factor. And I have to say that I do think the main factor why I didn't go down the academic route was because I didn't get an academic job and I did apply for them. And if I had got one and I prob almost certainly would've accepted it and done it and I would be carrying on doing it.

So when did you start applying for academic jobs?

Well, it was, have been about a year before my funding ran out. So at the end of the second year, which is not a terribly good time actually because most places want you to have already finished your PhD.

What kind of academic jobs were they? Were they, junior research fellows?

Yeah, they were junior research fellowships in general posts because there wasn't anything that was specific to my area that was advertised. So I think, to be honest, I think it was mainly the economic situation because I knew the day that my funding ran out on after the three years, I didn't have anything to live on.

So I had to be doing something the next day that would be earning me money and I didn't, I wasn't going to scratch, I know people scratch around and do teaching for a year and wait for something else to come up and I, that didn't appeal to me at all.

And did you get any help from anybody in thinking about what you'd do if you didn't do an academic job?

Yes, I went to see the careers advisor at my university. This is about the same time when I realised that most academic jobs start advertising a year before they start.

At the same time I went to see the careers advisor about non-academic options, which was the fast stream, which is what ended up bringing me here.

Do you have any regrets about not pursuing an academic career? It was something that you were at one point quite interested in?

Yeah, I, it was, I don't regret it at all now because I think I'm enjoying my current job and I can see things in my personality that wouldn't have tallied very well with the academic side of things.

Like, I don't like teaching and that would've ended up being quite a big part of the job. But at the time, I would have to say it was a bit of a wrench, mainly because of just momentum that it's so much what you're expected to do is carry on in academia that, you know, it seems like a bit, it seems like you are doing the weird thing by leaving in a way. So at the time I did feel a bit, not exactly upset, but I can’t, kind of wondering whether I should have given it, you know, if I'd done this or that or given it or applied for this or that other job, maybe I should have could have carried on.

But in retrospect, I'm quite glad I didn't.

Sophie’s current role

Now we can talk a bit about your current role. What do you do?

I'm a clerk in the House of Commons, which is a bit of a funny job title, but it's basically like being a civil servant, it’s recruited through the fast stream and you work in the House of Commons, but you don't work for any political party. You are a neutral person, so you're just working for parliament and you are advising MP’s on whatever it is they want to do. If they're on a committee and they want to write a report, then you help 'em with that. Or if they want to put amendments down to a Bill, then you help them with that or whatever it might be.

The House of Commons as a whole, I think employees about a thousand people directly. And within that there are about a hundred people who are clerks, which is what I am. And a clerk is an old fashioned term for, basically a, the person who is like a civil servant in the government department. So they're doing briefings, they're drafting amendments to Bills, anything that members want to have happen that requires, you know, a certain amount of drafting skill and research skill clerks will do that kind of thing.

In addition to that, there are lots of support staff who are doing administrative things. There is a House of Commons Library who are all subject specialists. Some of the Select Committees employ subject specialists, and quite a lot of them have PhDs and it, it can be a part of their academic career to come and on here for secondment.

And obviously, I mean, we are divided up into departments within the House of Commons, so I'm just talking about my department, but there are, you know, there's a refreshment department and there's a finance department and so on, that we don't really have that much day-to-day contact with.

And on a day-to-day basis, can you give me an idea of exactly what your activities are and what your responsibilities are?

Yeah, there are two kinds of jobs here and one is working for a Select Committee and one is a procedural job. And at the moment I'm working for a Select Committee. So what the Select Committee does is it will choose a topic and run an inquiry into it and gather evidence and eventually write a report on what they think about it.

So I'm the clerk of a committee, so I'm responsible for, we have a team of people working for each Select Committee, so I'm responsible for kind of directing that team in order to reach that goal of running the inquiry smoothly, getting all the research done, getting all the people in that the committee wants to talk to, et cetera.

And so would you at one point have been working on a committee but not the clerk?  

Not the clerk, yes, exactly. I, I've only been the clerk of the committee since October, so I spent the first four years, well the first two years working for, for a committee with this more senior clerk as the clerk of the team. And then the next two years I worked in a procedural job, which is the other half of the jobs that clerks do, which is more connected with the chamber. So you're not working in teams really. You're working on your own little bit of whatever it might be.

What does that involve?

It's a wide range of things and they're all quite specialist.

The one that I worked on was called the Journal Office and that is to do with preparing the written record of the decisions that are made by the House of Commons. It's not like Hansard, so you're not writing down every single word that everyone says. It's just keeping the record of, you know, divisions and votes and what has, what has been passed and what has been rejected and so forth. And every day at the end of the day we publish a, a sheet that says, this is what the House decided today. And I was responsible for doing part of that.

Is that an Interesting job?

It is an interesting job, and the thing about the job here is that we move within the House of Commons every two years and you don't necessarily get to decide where you're gonna go. So you have to be a bit comfortable with that when you join. But if you are comfortable with that, it, it is very interesting 'cause you move around a lot and you see lots of different subject areas and different sides to the House. And if you're interested in politics, which I am, then it's a great place to work.

I think you have to be not party political because you have to be neutral and if you were very party political, I wouldn't suit you very much because you'd be seeing everything through that lens. But if you, if it's just the fact that you have a general interest, which I think is what I do, then it's a great place to work.

So you’re clerk of a committee and what kind of topics does the committee look at?

Well the committee I've worked for at the moment is the Scottish Affairs Committee. So we are supposed to look after the bits of Scotland that are not yet devolved to the Scottish Parliament, which are things like Defence.

So we're doing an inquiry on, you might have heard there's some new aircraft carriers that are going to be built on the Clyde Shipyards and we're doing an inquiry on that and how it could, how the economic benefit could be maximised for the rest of Scotland and that kind of thing. We are also seeing, we're having a one off session with the people who are involved in the constitutional commission, which is looking at whether more powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament or not. So we'll be talking to them.

What else? We recently finished a quite a long inquiry into poverty in Scotland, which is also a reserved matter because the treasury deals with benefits and that kind of thing. So, it, it's, it can be particularly with Scotland because you are kind of doing everything that is still reserved. It can be quite a wide ranging remit.

How long might you be working on a particular inquiry?

It varies. The longer ones can be a year or more, more normally I would say maybe four or five months.

It's all interrupted by the parliamentary recesses as well because we have a long summer recess. So it's a bit like university terms really. And for the most part nothing happens during the long summer recess, so you have to try and finish things off beforehand and then start new things afterwards. And obviously if there's an election at any point, then everything stops 'cause Parliament's dissolved.

So does it mean that you go on holiday?

We do to an extent. It's not, I think people who've worked here for a long time will remember the days when the recess happened and everyone just disappeared and they were never seen again.

That's not really the case so much anymore because we still get inquiries from the public and the press and so on. So we still have to be in touch and check emails and if anything comes up we have to be able to be here. But there is a lot less to do in the recesses that you do have the opportunity to go on longer holiday. I mean it's a bit like university terms. You have the opportunity to go away for a bit longer than you might in another job. The flip side of that is that you can't take any leave at all when the House is sitting, you have to be here all the time. So that's a bit inflexible. You can't say I'd like to avoid the school holidays and go off skiing because Parliament's bound to be sitting at that time.

Can you give me an idea of what you do on a daily basis?

If we think about what I've done today, it's probably quite a typical day. I've written up some briefing material for the committee's session next week, which is background material and the types of things they might want to ask questions on.

I've, I've got a meeting of a different committee that I also work for tomorrow, so I've been speaking to members about that and they've had some questions about exactly what we're considering. So I've been answering their queries, sending out papers for members to look at. Our secretary does that, but I will check off everything to make sure that it's, you know, it's the right thing to send out.

And who are the members?

For the members of Parliament. So, I, in addition to the Scottish Affairs Committee, I also work for a committee called Modernisation of the House of Commons, which is, it doesn't meet as often as some other committees, which is why I'm doing it in addition to the other committee.

And it looks at things like sitting hours and whether they should be made more family friendly and that kind of thing. So the members on that can be quite high profile. Harriet Harmon's the chair of that committee and we have people like Theresa May is on it and Simon Hughes on it. Scottish Affairs is obviously Scottish members and they're not so well known down here, but obviously they're known in Scotland.

Mohammed Sarwar, the chairman of that committee. And I, you would normally as a clerk liaise more with the chairman than you would with the other members of your committee because the chairman is the one who's deciding the program subject to the agreement of the rest of them.

Do you have to do much traveling up to Scotland or is it because you're looking at devolved and un-devolved issues at the moment?

There is, there is a fair amount of travel. I think I've been four or five times since October, which is probably quite a lot. I mean, it it, it's because the members are keen to be seen in Scotland and not be remote in a way in Westminster.

I mean we are dealing with reserved issues, but they're happening in Scotland so they want to do things in Scotland. For example, I said we were doing that inquiry into Defence and they had a visit around the shipyards in Govan to see what was going on. So yeah, we do kind of go up and down quite a bit. I wouldn't want to give the impression that it's not a desk job because actually a lot of the days that I spend here are typing on the computer from quite early in the morning to quite late at night. But it's flexible in the sense of you can do that at home.

We have, remote access, so if you need to be at home for whatever reason and you are just drafting a report or whatever it might be, then you can do that. And in terms of meetings, your, your committee will be meeting at least once, probably twice a week. So you are over in the palace in the meeting room for possibly two, three hours at a stretch doing that. Committees normally go on visits a few times a year abroad and within the UK I've been at the, well, when I first started I had a great time because then the first visit I went to and they said, you have a glamorous time, you can go to Slough to look at grammar schools because Slough is one of the few places that still has grammar schools.

But then the following January I got to go to California for a week, which is very nice. In the cold January winter. I've been to Vancouver, Denmark, Germany. One of the things that we do is kind of a, a strange part of our job is we get sent on loan to the various European institutions, the Council of Europe, to help out with their temporary sessions that they run for parliamentarians from all over Europe.

And there are various different jobs that you'd be doing there. You start off by summarising people's speeches. It's a bit like Hansard, but you're not doing it verbatim. You're doing more of a summary and then, as you get a bit more experience, you're the minute writer writing the minutes of the meetings, or handling questions. They have a question time like we have in Parliament, they have a European style of question time, so advising members on how to phrase their questions to make them on the subject matter that is allowed to be asked about and that kind of thing.

And that's quite fun because it's always in Strasbourg or Paris or there was one recently in Kazakhstan. So you can get sent all over the world. Not all the time but good, good few times a year.

You said you work early mornings, late nights, but is it more or less a nine to five job?

It's a 10 to six job, which I think is quite common for London.

You are expected to do night duty as I think I mentioned earlier, which involves being here for, the, the late night sittings. A certain core number of staff have to be here all the time. So we do that on a rota and see what you would do perhaps is spend, I'm on a Tuesday night at the moment, it's my night, so I'll spend the early part of Tuesday here in the office from 10 till 2:30, then the House starts sitting at 2:30. So I'll go over to the palace, where there's a, a duty desk basically as a hot desk for the people who are on duty that night. And log into the computer over there and take some work with me and carry on till 11.

And then you can go home?

And then you can go home.

And what is your working environment like? How would you describe it?

At the moment I'm working, we have, offices across the road from the House of Commons itself. So it's quite, it's just a standard office block pretty much. And I'm lucky enough at the moment to have my own office, but a lot of it is open plan, so it's pretty much like anywhere else that you would work.

Last year I worked in the Palace of Westminster itself, which is, it's a great place to work in that's very atmospheric and you know, it's, you really feel that you're in the thick of it when you are there. But on the other hand it's, it's not very modern so it's not really set up for, for computers and that kind of thing. You tend to get wires trailing all down the walls where they've tried to fit things around the corners. but it's, it's a great place to work and obviously it's not very far to get everywhere that you might need to go on a, on a day-to-day basis.

And what about the people in your environment?

The people are fantastic. That's one of the best things about working here is that all of the clerks here, they, they tend to be a load of people who have very odd interests. Quite a few of them have done PhDs and you know, you find people who in their spare time and writing books on bridges or the history of Newcastle or whatever it might be. So, and they're all very supportive and there're a great bunch of people to work with really.

Does that surprise you that there are so many people with PhDs?

Not really. And there are quite a lot of people who, if they don't have PhDs, they have Masters or they've done some kind of further study. I dunno if this is anticipating what we're gonna come onto to later, but when I first looked into doing this job, it's because I went to my careers advisor and said I have quite academic research interests, but I'm also more interested in current affairs and I'd like to try and combine those two. And the idea I'd come with was working for a think tank or something and she suggested this as a job that combines the kind of academic style 'cause there is a lot of research and preparation of briefing and written material with a more political environment.

What are things that you enjoy most about your job?

Well, I do, I do enjoy the drafting part of it. 'cause I quite like, putting an argument together and marshalling all the bits of evidence that we've heard and coming up with a conclusion at the end of it.

So I, I actually do, although you still get the essay crisis mentality when you've got to do it by a certain deadline, actually, it's quite satisfying to do that. The other thing that's, that I enjoy is the fact that the committee can basically call anyone they want to come and give evidence to them. So, you know, if you're on the, I started on the education committee and we are doing inquiries into secondary schooling and they'll just say, “Oh, we need evidence on the best, you know, do grammar schools are grammar schools better than comprehensive?” So let's just call all these academics in and call all these people in and they all turn up because it's, it's the House of Commons.

And they have, they have the ability to just get the world's expert at the drop of a hat.

Are you having to get these people in?

We are, yes. But they're usually very willing. It's very rare that they don't want to do it.

What other kind of research might you doing? Do you, do you consult any source material? Is it mainly people and experience?

We do. I mean it's not really academic source material. It's, it would be things like government, green papers, white papers, reports in the sense of, you know, if there's been an independent commission set up to look at something and they report on it, that kind of material.

And the academic, we are influenced by academic opinion. So in the example of secondary schools, there was academic research done on whether people in grammar schools perform better or people in comprehensives. And the way that we access that is by getting the relevant academic to come and tell us about it. We wouldn't really trawl through their research papers. It's, everything is organised around what we call oral evidence sessions where we get the person in and ask them questions and it's all recorded and we have a shorthand writer, excuse me, who takes a complete record of it and we get a transcript at the end.

So that's how we're taking evidence mainly.

The pros and cons of working in the public sector

What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of working in the public sector?

The advantages are that most of your colleagues are very nice and friendly and it's, it's a friend, it's a good working environment. And I, I think this is a public sector feature in that, although sometimes you have to put in long hours because the work demands it. Because for instance here, if there's gonna be a vote at 11 o'clock at night, you have to be here for that vote at 11 o'clock at night. Say the next day if it's quite a light day, no one minds if you go home early or you work from home or whatever.

So it's, it is that kind of flexible. You are doing what the work demands, but you're not doing more than the work demands. You're being here for the sake of being here. And there is a sense of kind of common goals and common efforts. The, the advantages as well, if you get fantastic pension, which I guess most people don't get in the private sector anymore, they say you get paid less. I don't know if that's actually how far that is true. You certainly get paid more than you would in academia.

I guess you don't get these six figure salaries, but then if you're looking for that, you are obviously not looking for to go into the public sector anyway.

Sophie’s advice

If you were giving advice to somebody who's doing a PhD and thinking about going through the fast stream civil service recruitment process, what would you say to them?

I would say that, if you're not sure, it's always worth doing it because it is such a long process still that if you change your mind halfway through, you know, if you, if you decide two months down the line that actually you did want to do it, you're, you're gonna have to wait quite a long time till the next round. So it's always worth starting off with it. And then if you get through, great and if you don't get through, well, you know, that's one option ruled out for you.

And there are quite a diversity of jobs within that structure of recruitment, so it's worth looking at all of the different streams within the fast stream to think about which one you might actually be more interested in rather than just going down to the central department's route that the bulk of people do go for. I think in terms of this particular job, there are quite a few people who have PhDs who do it, and they, they do Open Days and they, they do outreach to universities and they, there are lots of people who are quite keen to go and tell people about it.

So if anyone was actually seriously interested in doing this exact job, it's not hard to find someone to talk to, just to go and have coffee with and tell, tell you about what it, what it involves more generally. I think possibly one thing that I've learned is that when I was doing my PhD, I was so focused on the subject of the research and thinking, you know, 18th century French is not applicable to any kind of job.

I'm just chucking this away if I leave. And that's not really the case. There are, I mean, you do get a lot more out of it than just the subject that you are studying and that is valued more than I thought it would be, really by certain employers. So it's not hopeless if you are not, if you're not interested in carrying on the academia, it's not like you have to start again from before you did your PhD.

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